Friday 14 February 2020

American Herring Gull

I am absolutely stunned. Can't really believe I am writing this post to be honest. At the time however it was all a bit stressful...

At about 2.15pm I pulled up alongside the lower part of the Axe Estuary.  As my car eased to a halt I glanced up to see how many gulls were gathered on the mud opposite, like I always do.  There wasn't that many to be honest, certainly not the carpets I was hoping for, but one of the specks instantly grabbed my attention, and without any conscious thinking my brain muttered 'dark juv Glauc' to itself... 

Isn't it strange how that happens. I literally could see no detail, but I guess as I have glanced up at these gulls so many times before, my brain noticed without me actually thinking, that something looked different about one of the 'shades of brown' I could see.  My bins went up, with my inner self naively confident I was about to get a bin-full of a dark chocolate brown juv Glaucous Gull...but what I actually got was a Herring Gull! My scope and camera came straight out...

At first I was just hopeful.  Yes I could see a matt brown bodied Herring Gull, virtually solidly dark from upper breast down to the legs, with dark tertials and fairly plain coverts, but the bird was asleep. I have actually been in his exact situation before, on a couple of occasions, only to be let down when I saw more.  But more than ever I was willing this bird to reveal a pink bill and large pale head... and it did!

Panic mode kicked in - the game was on this could be the real smithsonian deal!!! I could see it had distinctly zebra-striped undertail coverts, which was another big plus for American Herring Gull, and look at that strikingly shaped pale head with an unusually pink bill for a first-winter Herring.  Frustratingly though, the bird remained static so I couldn't see any more than just the very tip of its tail - the one part of the bird I really needed to see. 

All in all going well so far you could say.  But now take this into consideration....

1/ I have a bird that has all the hallmarks of a pukka rare, but I haven't seen the one clinching feature. The conclusive single feature that you must see.

2/ My phone battery was at 4%.

3/ My son was with his Nanny, who had to go out in twenty minutes time and is a five minute drive away.

Three stressful factors in what should have been a joyous series of events.  Anyway, I had to do something so bit the bullet...

I quickly phoned Gavin (who was half an hour away) and posted a message on the local WhatsApp Group "Got an American Herring Gull candidate on Estuary but not seen tail yet" . Then my phone died.  I was alone.

Thankfully the American Herring Gull 'candidate' didn't do what many gulls on the Axe tend to do. It actually stayed put.  Ian Mc arrived ten minutes later, and once I got him on (the now sitting down and asleep) gull, he kindly lent me his phone so I could call Nanny and inform her I will give her a lift to where she had to be, which gave me a further 15 minutes in the field.  A short while later Kevin and Phil turn up, and after about ten minutes I felt Phil had captured enough of the birds tail in a picture to nail it - seemed to be solidly black from base to tip.  Bingo. I borrowed Kev's phone to call Mark B, and gladly Gav soon arrived. It was the real deal.  An American Herring Gull, an Axe first, and my first ever full stop. Superb. And surprisingly the first new species for the patch since Least Sand way back on 2nd August 2016!

It was soon time for me to leave, but just over an hour later I was able to return in a more relaxed state.  I had a bit of charge on my phone, my Mum had been to town and returned home, plus Jess had now finished work so Harry was with his Mummy.  Finally I could properly enjoy this bird...


And then at 4:15pm it took flight, which I managed to video and subsequently grab stills from...

Although others had snapped the tail pattern, it was something I wanted to do myself so am delighted with the above two stills.  After I took this short video, it pitched down again for a brief moment, before upping and heading off out to sea.  

Will we see it again? I hope so.  But if not, what a privilege and what a brilliantly educational bird.  Am delighted to have found it too as that's now 18 species of gull I've found on the Axe (Glaucous Gull on 12th Nov 2010 being the 17th, so that's a nine year wait!).  Next easiest are Franklin's or Ross's I suppose - so I really cannot wait for number 19 because it's going to be a corker whatever it is!  Great Black-headed (or Pallas's for the kids) remains my most wanted of course.

Anyway, just to summarise for those who aren't so fussed about gulls, here's what makes the above bird a first-winter American Herring Gull (match the points to the images below);

1/ A pretty much all dark tail across the width from base to tip.

2/ Striped rump, no clean white areas.

3/ Distinctively striped undertail coverts.

4/ Solidly dark brown underparts extending to upper breast where it becomes more mottled. This single features made it look like such a dark young gull, strikingly so.

5 / Contrasting paler heavy-looking head. 

6/ Thick based mostly pale bill - most first-winter Euro Herring Gulls retain darker bills in their first-winter.

7/ Solidly dark tertials with narrow pale tips and just a bit of notching on the lowest.

8/ Solidly dark secondary bar.

9/ Far less notched and patterned coverts than you'd expect on a first-winter Euro Herring.

10/ A restricted pale inner primary window.

11/ An overall heavy and well built gull. Completely different structure to any large gull I've ever seen in fact - really front heavy with a broad breast and thick neck (well it is American!).

Things got even more interesting tonight, as closer scrutiny of the pics revealed this is the very same American Herring Gull that was seen at West Bexington on 25th and 26th January. When it first turned up at West Bex (found by Axe birder Ian Mc) I was egging it on to drop in here - can't believe it actually did! Just amazes me it's not been seen at any time in between, where has it been hiding!?

As ever with a rarity, the best part was sharing it. And am delighted most of the Axe patchers got to see it.  I really would love it to return though, as am sure there are many more who want to clap eyes on it - good luck all!

Although the following sightings feel a bit insignificant now, to complete the day they need to be mentioned. AHG aside it was a good gull day on the Axe, I saw at least 60 Med Gulls, with the actual total probably well over 100.  Also 120 Commons and rather surprisingly a first-winter Yellow-legged mid-morning...

There were a few waders about too, with three Greenshank and a Bar-tailed Godwit being notable winter Axe records.

Wow. What a day. Steve out.


  1. Steve, what a magnificent brute! Great Post!

    Finally, am very grateful that you spent much of your meagre 4% on phoning me!

    1. Ha no problem! Was indeed a cracker, and really isn't like the shape of any other large gull I've seen befpre.

      Looking through my post again I have been somewhat taken by the YLG as well now- this was another absolute beast and isn't it just oozing it's prowess even in my crappy shot!

      See you soon

  2. Great post Steve and what a lovely bird. Had a hunch it would appear on the Axe and am praying it ends up on the Exe. Trouble is if it does it'll probably be too distant to suss. Keep up the great work. All the best. Matt

    1. Thanks very much Matt! Be keen to know if the Otter bird was as striking as this? Actually that's a good a place as any for this one to show up again - or back here of course which would be great. Weather has been lousy since and water levels all over the place.

    2. I've just back on your blog at the Otter bird - another cracker and so distinctive in their own way. Some super pics of it.